It is a cool, May evening in New York, and the public files into Broadway Comedy club. Waiters navigate the cramped jumble of legs and tables that is the New York comedy space. Beer or cocktail in hand, the audience awaits a night of comedy. Midway through the night, one comedian’s spot leads to another. The show reaches its conclusion, as the headliner ambles on stage. The comedian is Igor Meerson, a Russian comic hot off a string of spots at clubs around the city, including a performance for a Russian-speaking audience, the main purpose for his recent New York visit.
Though not a household name in America, Meerson is perhaps Russia’s funniest export. Performing with the likes of Dylan Moran, Eddie Izzard, and Tom Green, the 34-year-old comic is no stranger to the stage. A native of St. Petersburg, Meerson has performed stand-up for thirteen years. He is part of the first wave of Russian comedians that ignited a stand-up comedy market in Russia.
Meerson attributes the inception of stand-up in Russia to a mega popular comedy competition called KVN: “The Club of the Merry and Quick-Witted” or “The Club of the Happy and Clever” depending on the translation. Started in 1961, the show is a cultural phenomenon in Russia. The KVN Union website boasts a following of over 5 million viewers annually. Teams are pitted against each other on the collegiate level, move to a city-wide competition, and arrive at a regional tournament. The finals are broadcast on the main Russian television channel, Channel One. Take American Idol, replace the pop singers with dueling comedy teams and lose the fit Brit, and you arrive at something like KVN. There is little to compare in America. Teams face off at different stages that include prepared monologues, sketches, and songs. A panel of judges determine each team’s fate. As team captain, Meerson prepared monologues, a customary introduction for team’s competing. “It was quite easy to change the type of comedy I was doing from team to individual work,” said Meerson.
The emergence of stand-up in Russia is equally linked to changes in culture. Improv and sketch comedy, collective in nature, are better grasped through Soviet methodology. The comedy of KVN thrived under a Soviet class that championed the power of community. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, democracy came to Russia and imminent change.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and KVN experience, Meerson and fellow comedians developed Russian stand-up comedy. Before a surge of western influence in the early 2000s, they created their own voice; they built a foundation, laying the bricks of a comedic style rooted in past traditions. The medium was born from humble means in informal venues. “No one understood what was happening,” said Meerson. “We performed for our friends in cheap bars. It took 7 or 8 years to build an industry.”
Today there are no agents, promoters, or formal clubs, but the business is only in its second decade of existence. However, there is a demand for stand-up, as Western television continues to wriggle into Russian life. “There are a lot of comedy shows in bars and theatres. It depends on the comedians. Lots of venues have comedy nights,” said Meerson. “It’s easier to build your profile now. If you’re on TV, you can tour around Russia.” Comedians like Dylan Moran and Eddie Izzard have even enjoyed success touring in Russia. In 2012, Moran became the first English-speaking comedian to perform in Russia, slinging jokes to crowds in St. Petersburg, as they were translated in real time. The digital age has given rise to a new generation of Russian comics as well; it has brought about comedians better versed in English and those fond of American comedians. “The young audience now can watch American comedians on YouTube. I sometimes see that they copy American or British comedians’ styles, said Meerson. “Sometimes I see a young act and think, ‘Oh, that’s Jimmy Fallon or that’s Louis C.K.’ There is a lot of copying with the young generation.”
For now, Meerson enjoys the fruits of his labor. He tours internationally throughout Europe and Australia, proving that not every Russian is a Bond villain with an eyepatch. Meerson has an English and Russian act in his back pocket, using both depending on the audience. “When I went to Britain, I had to throw away my Russian material because it was impossible to translate it,” said Meerson. “The structure of the Russian language is so different. Even if there are some jokes to translate, they likely won’t work because of the cultural differences.” In May, Meerson stopped in New York to perform a Russian language show, enjoying additional spots at The Broadway Comedy Club and New York Comedy Club along the way. He hopes to return in the near future and perform more extensively.
We also asked Meerson about the issues he faces with censorship in Russia and abroad. Speaking of state censorship, he said, “If we’re talking about live comedy, anything is possible. There are no problems. If were talking about Russian TV, there is a kind of censorship. I am old enough to remember real censorship though, living through Soviet times. Now it is not state censorship. There is a local censorship.” The type of censorship he speaks of originates from television producers and network executives, fearful of content that needles the Russian elite. Stations do not want to represent any part of Russian political society. Meerson also finds some challenges in the West, but these restraints stem from adapting his act to fit a different set of cultural expectations. This proves that creating comedy in two dissimilar cultures is tricky business. It is for this reason that the 34-year-old comic is one of the hardest working in the industry. On an early visit to Britain, friend and fellow comedian Dylan Moran, offered some guidance. “He gave me a lot of advice. I translated all my Russian material, but none of it was working,” said Meerson. “The stereotype in Russia is we have a lot of censorship, but I have noticed that the West has some boundaries too.”
Thirteen years ago, stand-up comedy in Russia was little more than a microphone and a confused audience in a backroom bar. Today, it is a fledgling industry, but ripe for development. Open mics populate the country and mass media serves as an incubator for the medium. One can only hope that the trend continues.